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What Was the Lincoln Conspiracy?

The Lincoln Conspiracy refers to the clandestine plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, orchestrated by John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices. This sinister plan, which also targeted other key government figures, aimed to destabilize the Union just after the Civil War. Discover how this conspiracy unfolded and its impact on American history. What might have changed if it had failed?
M. Dee Dubroff
M. Dee Dubroff

The events culminating in the assassination of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, are known as the Lincoln conspiracy. This conspiracy concerns the murderous machinations of its chief instigator, Shakespearean actor and Southern sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth. His band of followers agreed to his scheme to rid the Union of all of its leaders in one fell swoop. On 14 April 1865, at 10:15 PM, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were all slated to die at the hands of Booth and his accomplices, but as is the case for the best-laid schemes of mice and men, it all went astray.

The Lincoln conspiracy began as a plot to kidnap the president shortly after his second inauguration. Originally, Booth plotted to kidnap Lincoln, hold him captive in the Southern capitol of Richmond, and exchange him for Confederate soldiers held captive in various Union prisons. The plan was foiled and soon the conspiracy turned from a plan of kidnapping to one of murder. A truculent and angry man, Booth hated what he called the president's "northern abolitionism," and considered the declaration of martial law in his home state of Maryland a clear abuse of executive power.

The gun John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate President Lincoln.
The gun John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate President Lincoln.

As part of the plan, General Ulysses S. Grant was supposed to attend the performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater on that April evening, but a tiff between his wife, Julia, and Mary Todd Lincoln prevented their attendance. The life of Secretary of State William Seward was saved because of a neck brace he was forced to wear due to a carriage accident; it deflected the blows from the knife held by Booth's accomplice. Another accomplice in the conspiracy who was assigned to kill Vice President Johnson in his Kirkwood House residence made no attempt to do so.

Ford's Theater, where President Lincoln was shot.
Ford's Theater, where President Lincoln was shot.

Booth escaped the theater, but was tracked down by soldiers and died of a gunshot wound on 26 April. Four other members of the Lincoln conspiracy, including the first woman to be hanged in the United States, Mary Surratt, were hung on 7 July, a week after being convicted by a military commission. Four others were sentenced to prison, three to life sentences.

General Ulysses S. Grant was originally supposed to be at Ford's Theater the night Lincoln was assassinated.
General Ulysses S. Grant was originally supposed to be at Ford's Theater the night Lincoln was assassinated.

One of the most contested convictions was that of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who at first denied knowing who Booth was when he set his ankle, which was broken in his jump from the presidential balcony to the stage on the night of the assassination. Mudd later admitted that he'd met Booth once before. Dr. Mudd was sentenced to life in prison on Devil's Island for his involvement in the assassination. He served many years before being pardoned, and the expression "his name was mud" comes from this man's predicament.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the Lincoln Conspiracy?

Booth originally planned to kidnap President Lincoln and hold him captive in Richmond.
Booth originally planned to kidnap President Lincoln and hold him captive in Richmond.

The Lincoln Conspiracy refers to the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, which was successfully carried out by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. Initially, the plan was to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners, but as the Civil War drew to a close, the scheme shifted to murder. Booth and his co-conspirators aimed to eliminate Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward to destabilize the Union government.

Who were the main conspirators in the Lincoln assassination?

Secretary of State William Seward was a target of the Lincoln conspiracy.
Secretary of State William Seward was a target of the Lincoln conspiracy.

John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor and Confederate sympathizer, led the conspiracy. His inner circle included Lewis Powell, who was assigned to kill Secretary of State Seward; George Atzerodt, who was tasked with assassinating Vice President Johnson; and David Herold, who assisted Powell. Mary Surratt, the owner of a boarding house where the conspirators met, was also implicated and later executed for her role in the conspiracy.

How did the Lincoln assassination impact the United States?

Vice President Andrew Johnson was also a target of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln.
Vice President Andrew Johnson was also a target of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln.

The assassination of President Lincoln had profound effects on the United States. It plunged the nation into mourning and altered the course of Reconstruction. Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, lacked Lincoln's political acumen and was less conciliatory toward the South, which led to a more punitive and chaotic Reconstruction era. The assassination also symbolized the deep divisions and animosity that persisted even after the Civil War had ended.

Were any conspirators brought to justice for their roles in the Lincoln assassination?

Yes, several conspirators were brought to justice. Four were executed by hanging on July 7, 1865: Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt. Others received prison sentences, including Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth's broken leg. John Wilkes Booth was killed by Union soldiers on April 26, 1865, during a manhunt, thus evading trial.

What were the long-term consequences of the Lincoln Conspiracy?

The long-term consequences of the Lincoln Conspiracy included heightened security measures for U.S. presidents and a legacy of what-ifs regarding Lincoln's plans for post-war reconciliation. The assassination also entrenched the image of Lincoln as a martyr for the Union and emancipation, solidifying his place as one of America's most revered presidents. The event has been extensively studied by historians, and its impact on American history continues to be a subject of significant interest and debate.

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Discussion Comments

jcraig

I would really like to know more of the motivations of the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

I really have to wonder exactly what they were thinking, as far as what their actions would accomplish and whether or not they thought they would actually create change, since the war was realistically over.

I do not see what change they thought they could create, but I find it interesting, because it involved so many people and was so complex that they had to have some types of goals in the conspiracy besides just killing the leaders.

Izzy78

I have a really random question, but how famous was John Wilkes Booth at the time of the conspiracy?

I am only asking because I am trying to imagine if he was a really famous actor, and he all of a sudden killed the president of the United States, then that would be something in itself.

Unlike another politician killing one of their peers in an overthrow, it would be someone that was unaffiliated with politics, but famous nonetheless, committing what would probably be considered the biggest murder in the history of the country.

kentuckycat

@TreeMan - You are correct. I have even heard a story that while John Wilkes Booth was on the run he read newspaper articles about himself and was surprised that he was not being praised by Southerners, but rather vilified.

I honestly believe that it was a conspiracy created by really idealistic people that did not know any better, like they just assumed killing the leader would be a good thing, but did not think it all the way through.

In studying history, there was a minority of people that felt that killing Lincoln would do a whole lot and towards the end of the war, when defeat was assured, it was well known among Southerners that Lincoln was not going to punish them as hard as Congress would, but there were still people that acted without thinking through.

TreeMan

I find the whole Lincoln conspiracy to be incredibly interesting for two reasons. One of them concerns how amazingly bold their strategy was as they not only conspired to kill the president, hard enough to begin with, but other people high up in government, all at the some time in different locations. I find this to be quite amazing that they thought they could actually accomplish all these assassinations.

The other thing that is interesting is the fact that killing Lincoln would not accomplish much at all for the south and even proved to be a bad thing.

Lincoln was the one person in government keeping Congress from punishing the South and with him gone Reconstruction began in a way that it was difficult for the south to recover quickly.

The war was already over and killing Lincoln would have accomplished nothing, so I do not exactly see why they went through with it.

googie98

@medicchristy: Mary Surratt owned the boarding house where the co-conspirator’s met on a regular basis to plan their attack on the President, Vice President and Secretary of State. They wanted to completely wipe out the chain of command in Washington, in order to give the South control.

The day of the assassination Mary Surratt went to her tavern, supposedly to collect back rent owed by one of her tenants. When she was there, she gave John Lloyd, her innkeeper, a package containing field glasses. She also told him “to make ready the shooting irons”. She was referring to the two repeating carbines and seven revolvers. She bought and stored these items for the conspirator’s on her property.

All the conspirators were hung on July 7, 1865. This made Mary Surratt the first women ever hung in the United States.

medicchristy

What exactly was Mary Surratts involvement in the Lincoln Conspiracy?

anon67161

Booth did not act alone. There was definitely a conspiracy. Mary Surratt and seven others wanted him dead so Booth took care of their desires.

anon67158

I think there was a conspiracy because Booth had great connection with the eight people especially Mary Surratt.

apple07

Hey,

I'm a high school student and we're doing this debate. Well our group got the topic on whether there was a conspiracy to kill Lincoln or not. My partner and I are on the affirmative side and we have to argue that there was a conspiracy to kill him and we also have to criticize the other side say that there wasn't a conspiracy to kill him. I was wondering if you could give me your opnions or views on this topic, or actually on both sides because it would be much appreciated. I don't have any comments or general questions, but I'm just trying to get people's views. So please answer asap b/c its due this friday.

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    • The gun John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate President Lincoln.
      By: Tim Evanson
      The gun John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate President Lincoln.
    • Ford's Theater, where President Lincoln was shot.
      By: granitepeaker
      Ford's Theater, where President Lincoln was shot.
    • General Ulysses S. Grant was originally supposed to be at Ford's Theater the night Lincoln was assassinated.
      By: Stocksnapper
      General Ulysses S. Grant was originally supposed to be at Ford's Theater the night Lincoln was assassinated.
    • Booth originally planned to kidnap President Lincoln and hold him captive in Richmond.
      By: olavs
      Booth originally planned to kidnap President Lincoln and hold him captive in Richmond.
    • Secretary of State William Seward was a target of the Lincoln conspiracy.
      By: Expert Infantry
      Secretary of State William Seward was a target of the Lincoln conspiracy.
    • Vice President Andrew Johnson was also a target of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln.
      By: The British Library
      Vice President Andrew Johnson was also a target of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln.